Citizen journalism ruins the world (again)

On Friday, like clockwork, I got calls from three reporters asking me to defend citizen journalism (again) after its latest mortal sin against the gods of journalism: the report/rumor/lie on CNN’s iReport that Apple’s Steve Jobs had been rushed to the hospital with a heart attack, which spread and sent the company’s share’s diving.

Every time so-called citizen journalism muffs one, I get such calls, as if to say, look what your bratty kid is up to now. Funny, I don’t get them – as a journalist – every time a reporter messes up.

I told these reporters that they were on the tail of the wrong story. This may not be about citizen journalism at all. It may be about someone trying to game Apple stock and using, nefariously, whatever tools were available. I also told them that anyone who sold their stock on the basis of a pseudonymous post on the web was a fool who deserved what they got (are these the same people who invested in subprime mortgages?).

The proper response to this is to ask what our response should be, not to decry all “citizen journalism” because of this.

First, we need to recognize that life is messy. The idea that we could package the world neatly in a box with a bow on top is a vestige of the old means of production and distribution of news: tightly controlled with the limitation-turned-luxury of time.

Ever since the creation of 24-hour cable news, we have lost that luxury of time. Mistakes – let alone rumors and lies – go out live and the public has to learn to judge the news more skeptically. The truth is, they always have. But now rather than ignoring their skepticism, we need to encourage it and educate people to think this way. Call it media literacy. That is one proper response.

Another response from media is that we have to get better at giving caveats. As news rushes by, it is important that we make it clear what is and isn’t confirmed. We thought we were in the business of saying what we know in the news. But we’re more in the business of saying what we don’t know. I’ve often quoted Nick Denton’s definition of what we bloggers call “half-baked posts.” They say to our readers: “Here’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t know. What do you know?”

Note well that CNN iReport issues a blanket caveat on everything it “reports” — hell, this is its tagline and slogan: “Unfiltered. Unedited. News.” Maybe that last word is a problem, but then iReport has had lots of news, including video from the scene of the Virginia Tech massacre. CNN president Jonathan Klein said at a McGraw-Hill conference some months ago that the point of iReport was to have a place to accept stuff from citizens and witnesses that wasn’t CNN. Only that which is vetted, he said, goes up under the CNN brand. But, of course, iReport is near the CNN brand.

It may be a mistake for news organizations to keep begging people to send them stuff. That’s the way they think — centralized, controlling, exclusive. But the better structure may be for journalists to curate the best of what is out on the web. Rather than playing wack-a-mole on the occasional mistake/rumor/lie sent it, editors would better serve if they found the best content anywhere, not just among that which was sent to them.

When the web, like TV, goes live (I can broadcast live today from my Nokia phone over, news organizations will have no choice but to find and point to others’ content elsewhere because there won’t be time to send it in.

But the sanest response to reading a report from an unidentifiable source on Steve Jobs’ health is to get on the phone to Apple and find the truth. Note well that that happened quickly online. When I first heard this “news,” it was not that Jobs was sick but that Apple said he wasn’t sick. The reporters I talked to said that was what they first heard as well. Hmm, the system seems to have worked pretty well — except for fools who sell stock based on baseless rumors. But then, that has happened on Wall Street long before there was an internet.

The web, as it turns out, is almost as fast at spreading truth as it as at spreading rumors.

Is this a story of citizen journalism and its failings or of professional journalism and its jealousies?

(Crossposted at Comment is Free)

  • chico

    If it’s going to be called “news” under the CNN brand, maybe it shouldn’t be unfiltered and unedited.

  • It is about citizen journalism. Just as so-called mainstream journalism has been taken to task mightily in the past few years for its failings, so the failings of cit-j are highlighted when they happen.

    To my mind, this is more a failing of what cit-j doesn’t have in the way of infrastructure yet, and that’s editors. Or, more to the point, copy editors. Any MSM publication would (or should) have editors standing by to ask a reporter where this and that came from, the origin of a quote, the standing of an assertion made and so on, and to fact check

    Cit-j runs on the premise of publish it first and then ask the questions later. Sounds reasonable, and you say it makes for a good process. But many people out there take the first impression from a story as the only one, and that’s what persists.

    It will take a long while for the new media literacy to work its way into the public consciousness, if it ever does. Meanwhile, cit-j runs editor-free and, increasingly, even the MSM is starting to drop those old fuddy-duddies such as copy editors, preferring instead for reporters to be their own watchdogs. And those who have been in the business any time at all know where that will lead.

    I’m interested to see where the cit-j wind blows. I think it has potential. How it recovers from things like the iReport debacle will be important.

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  • I run a rumor site that depends exclusivily on reader content. As a result, my task is often vetting the information and applying common sense to the info. If I can’t, I mark it as rumor, warn people why it may or may not be true and go from there.

    Basically I try to make it clear whenever possible what is fact and what isn’t. Its not that hard and I do it without any of the contacts that the press has.

    How hard would it have been for a reporter to verify the story? Maybe five minutes of their time? Why don’t they ask themselves that.

  • I had a somewhat similar response when I got several emails about the “latest problem with citizen journalism,”

    I still think it’s actually a red herring to blame “citizen journalism.”

    What happened was called “a lie” and that act has been around LONG before citizen journalism.

    Granted – this is a new way to get that lie out there in the public, but it’s hardly a result of any box you can try to place citizen journalism into.

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  • You are exactly right, Jeff.

    It’s amazing how people can still be surprised that any unfiltered forum on the internet is going to have a certain amount of noise and people trying to get attention gaming the system. Just because it happened on a citizen journalism site this time doesn’t mean citizen journalism is broken – at all.

    Did Jayson Blair’s falsified NY Times reports mean all of journalism was broken? It was a symptom of problems, sure, but the discipline survives.

    Some people don’t seem to understand iReport is unfiltered on purpose. They have not changed that policy as a result of this, because it’s expected. A higher level of noise is the price paid for greater immediacy should news break.

    There is a branding issue, because people might expect any site associated with CNN will be verified. I think Jeff’s suggestion of simply shining a spotlight on the best citizen content is an excellent approach and helps solve this branding problem – especially if those “editor’s picks” are in fact verified.

    By the way, citizen journalism doesn’t imply a lack of editors. Oh My News, the Korean grandaddy of citizen journalism, employs a team of editors just like a traditional newspaper. My own video citizen journalism organization, The UpTake, requires videos to be approved by our editorial board.

  • Apparently I should’ve fact-checked the spelling of my last name… d’oh!

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  • Jorge

    Why didn’t CNN’s editors catch this sooner? Why are they being left off the hook instead of blaming Citizen Journalism? I thought CNN vetted these stories on iReport?

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  • When I worked in newspapers, some of my colleagues and I would sometimes laugh at the idiots who called in to complain about how they were misled by this or that error in the paper. We wondered how anyone could be stupid enough to be misled by what seemed like such obvious errors. I think it’s safe to say that our attitude would’ve been taken as yet another example of journalistic arrogance and how newspapers were living in ivory towers, scorning their readers instead of listening to them.

    So why would we give a free pass to the attitude that people who were misled by the Jobs story are victims of their own stupidity and that it is no fault of a “news” site under the brand of a worldwide, legitimate news company? We can laugh at those people’s idiocy, but the fact that the Jobs story, despite its seemingly obvious bogus nature and despite its short lifespan, still managed to do damage to Apple’s stock should make it very clear to us how much impact misinformation can have and quickly it can happen in this day and age and how important it is to prevent misinformation from entering the public sphere, no matter if it’s professional journalism or citizen journalism.

    The iReport tagline may be “Unfiltered, Unedited”, but does anyone really think those two words were put in there to convey “unreliable” to the users? Of course not. If anything, they were put in there to imply honesty and MORE accuracy because you’re getting it raw, without any media bias or spin. True, iReport is not seen on the same level as CNN in terms of accuracy, but I don’t believe the goal for citizen journalism is for it to be forever seen as professional journalism’s retarded cousin. So if it wants to eventually reach that level of legitimacy and acceptance — not just by journalists, but more importantly by the public — as a reliable news source and not just a consume-at-your-own-risk hodgepodge, then it needs mechanisms that will prevent blatant lies like the Jobs post from even being distributed without any kind of vetting. This was the high-profile case, but it makes one wonder how many lower-profile lies have quietly made their way into the public misinformation via the same channels.

    It’s absurd to decry all of citizen journalism just because of this, but it’s equally absurd to say that it was blameless for what happened. It’s not the overall concept of citizen journalism that’s broken, but more likely the particular way it is being practiced, or even more specifically, the way it is practiced by CNN. If you want to call something an act of “journalism”, then merely saying “life is messy” does not relieve it of responsibility for mistakes, no matter if it’s pro or citizen. It is no different than professional journalists saying “nobody’s perfect” or “you should be smart enough to know that was a mistake” when confronted with errors in their reporting. The end result is still the same — a misinformed public and a failed mission of journalism. We should hail citizen journalism for its triumphs, but we must also hold it responsible for its shortcomings as well.

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  • FC

    Digital is messy. A newspaper can print a correction. When something is published to the web, it spreads fast and when it’s wrong nobody is responsible. Propaganda ruins the world (again). Developing a story can take weeks or months, so the paper/ink costs and time to write are minor expenses. Digital is hit and run business so that’s why it’s messy. Ink can get messy too. Go to an insurance office and you’ll find paper all over the place. The get rid of paper idea is flawed. They tried this with credit cards to replace cash and now the credit card business is a mess.

    Don’t throw out your pens just yet.

  • Great analysis. As a former college debater and coach, I find this issue very parallel to the You Tube argument and mooning which dealt a sucker punch blow to the credibility and overall public relations for the debate community. The media tries to paint a given incident as an echo of a larger, more systemic problem. With the exception of crime, hunger, and war all exposed catastrophe and strife has deeper roots and reveals darker secrets. In such an isolated example, its surprising that such willy nilly logical chain is broadcast to millions and believed. Sure danger is involved, but the same danger is involved in mass media and not sourcing your stories in mass media is equally to blame. Unfortunately, citizen journalism and debate are dealing with similar issues. Although 6 or so weeks in and both are doing all right.

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